Trinity Health Saint Mary’s Grand Rapids Goes to the Dogs with New K-9 Program

Kyro, Bosco, Marco, and Zan are four of the newest furry friends that traveled from three different countries to Trinity Health Saint Mary’s as a part of a pilot K-9 program aimed at reducing workplace violence and supporting employee morale.

“The dogs were selected in February and started training in early March,” said Dave Kiddle, security director at Trinity Health Saint Mary’s. “We have two Dutch Shepherds that came from the Netherlands, and two Belgian Malinois Shepherds — one came from the Czech Republic, and one came from Slovakia. These four dogs will rotate working 24/7 shifts and will provide safety and support for colleagues. Sometimes, the K-9s will serve as therapy-type dogs and people will be able to pet them as long as their handler okays it, but they are also onsite at the hospital campus to help de-escalate tense situations and provide additional protection.”

Thanks to a significant grant from the Saint Mary’s Foundation, the K-9 program was approved in July 2021, and the ball started rolling to gather handlers, dogs, and begin a training program. The grant covers purchasing and training the dogs, veterinary expenses, vehicles, and other supplies.

“We are so proud to launch this program as it’s something our colleagues and the community can benefit from in so many aspects,” said Michelle Rabideau, president of the Saint Mary’s Foundation. “This is just one more way we are providing comfort and care for our patients, while also protecting our staff and making sure they have extra support when there are anxious situations — which can sometimes happen in hospital settings.”

Providing Support for Those Who Need It

Health care was an intimidating profession prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. After more than two years of working through COVID-19, it has made it even more treacherous.

In March 2021, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) reported that violence against health care workers reached epidemic proportions, accounting for approximately 50-percent of all victims of workplace violence across the country.   

Trinity Health Saint Mary’s Security Officer DeAngelo Person and his K-9, Marco.

“K-9 programs have been proven in other Trinity Health ministries to be key in creating a safe and therapeutic environment for staff, providing a sense of calm to the anxious family member, and peace to a dying patient,” said Kurt MacDonald, senior vice president of operations at Trinity Health Saint Mary’s. “This program will offer a consistent safety presence as the dogs and handlers will be patrolling the grounds and appearing throughout the hospital on a permanent basis. These dogs and handlers are trained in obedience, aggression control, and explosive detection — all pertinent to our day-to-day operations and the unique situations our colleagues encounter.”

The Saint Mary’s Emergency Department is often the area of the hospital with the highest amount of workplace violence encounters. It sees nearly 60,000 emergent patients annually and serves as an initial impression for many inpatients and visitors. The Emergency Department also provides initial evaluation for many requiring the only hospital-based inpatient psychiatric unit in the State of Michigan.

“Our dedicated team provides unmatched care, despite facing the reality of increasing violence in the workplace,” said Kiddle. “A well-trained K-9 unit is the preferred solution as dogs can both de-escalate tense situations, deter violence, and provide a therapeutic presence for patients, colleagues, and visitors.”

Through March 2022, Saint Mary’s staff recorded 119 workplace violence incidents, or 1.3 incidents per day. Of the 119 incidents, 61 of them involved a physical injury to an employee.

“My idea of a successful K-9 program is absolutely to have people feel safe,” said Rich Prince, organizer of the Trinity Health Saint Mary’s K-9 program. “Having a K-9 present can immediately decrease the threat level from the aggressor. Most people – from my personal experience – will fight me in a heartbeat but having a dog next to me is a deterrent. We’re not using the dog as a threat, but an additional tool to protect our staff here and to lend some comfort and — to bring some peace. When people see you’re deploying additional resources they understand that you’re trying to make it a safe and comfortable department.”

Train with the Best

After arriving in the United States in early 2022, the dogs were kenneled for a short period, and then went to live with their new handlers — each a Saint Mary’s security officer.

“Just being interested was not enough, our handlers had to go through physical agility tests, as it is a demanding job,” said Prince. “We started with 12 applicants and chose the four handlers we thought would work best with the four dogs. We look for the perfect match.”

Prince, a 30-year veteran of the Grand Rapids Police Department (GRPD), was hired to lead the Saint Mary’s K-9 program. Prince spent more than 20 years with GRPD’s K-9 unit — training dogs in a variety of environments. He helped select each dog, each handler, and developed the training course for the hospital’s new program.    

“We also did home visits to make sure that the dog would be in safe and secure location and that the residents could maintain the level of care for the dogs. Then the final process is an oral board. Each applicant was interviewed by a panel,” said Prince. “For the hospital we wanted good temperamental dogs — social dogs, we wanted dogs that would be well-received. If I took a dog out of a kennel and it gave me a growl or stink eye, I wouldn’t consider it. When dogs are selected by a handler, it’s like hitting the jackpot.”

After becoming familiar with their new family, the dogs and handlers went through training in Indiana at Vohne Liche Kennels — owned and operated by a retired Air Force K-9 trainer who has also trained dogs that work with the National Security Agency, the United States Secret Service, Michigan State Police, and more than 500 other civilian and police agencies. 

“Early on when I first started in late 90s, there was a negative stereotype of police dogs,” said Prince. “You could ask people on the street, and they’d say, ‘Oh police dogs attack people,’ and that’s so untrue. These dogs are not as they are depicted in Hollywood, for instance. We are able to demonstrate their sociability and working knowledge. Apprehension work or bite work is actually a very small percentage of their job.”

Putting the Dogs to Work

When the idea of the K-9 program started the staff at Saint Mary’s made a point to get input from various stakeholders and focus groups – including the Patient Family Advisory Council – made up of community members who offer insight and opinions on patient-related topics.

“It is important to discuss the members’ experiences within our health system as well as obtain feedback and input on various strategies and initiatives of the health care system,” said MacDonald. “We always want to approach new ideas with an open mind knowing that some may have fears of dogs or allergies, and we want to be sensitive to that. That is a key part of training.”

After the dogs complete their six-week training course, they will be introduced to the hospital team on April 18. The sights, sounds, and smells are all different. Acclimating the dogs in the hospital setting is an important final step before they become integrated into the daily operations at the hospital.

“They will be training every workday —obedience level, exposing the dog to surface levels, areas of the hospital inside and outside,” said Prince. “When the dogs first come back, they may be shaky, but in many ways this environment will be much more challenging than being on the streets with traditional K-9 work. Here it’s all a new atmosphere — elevators, different flooring, alarms going off — and of course, at times, challenging people. There’s still a ton of work to be done.”

The new furry friends are a welcome addition. While they will be on-hand for an occasional lick or pet, the staff at Saint Mary’s are excited for their newest co-workers to join the team — knowing the pooches have their backs.

“The feedback has been extremely positive — everyone is excited for the dogs to join us,” said Kiddle. “People keep asking about it, wanting to know when the dogs will be here officially. We are all looking forward to seeing the healing these dogs bring to our patients, visitors, and staff.”   

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